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(Review, Recap & Full Summary)

By Percival Everett

Book review, full book summary and synopsis for James by Percival Everett, a retelling of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the perspective of Jim.


In Percival Everett's James, Jim becomes a runaway slave after he hears that he's going to be sold by his owner, Miss Watson, and separated from his family. He escapes to a nearby island, but he's very quickly joined by a local boy, Huckleberry "Huck" Finn, who has faked his death in hopes of getting away from his abusive father.

The chain of events sets Jim and Huck off on an adventure down the Mississippi River, resulting in a variety of colorful, dangerous and at time tragic encounters as they make their way down the river.

Meanwhile, Jim has his own goals of finding a way to free his wife and daughter. He also has to keep himself and Huck alive in the process, as well as to preserve his dignity and reclaim his identity.

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary & Analysis
See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary & Analysis of James
Quick Plot Summary

Three-paragraph version: In Part I, Jim becomes a runaway slave after learning he's going to be sold and split up from his family, and he's joined by a boy, Huck, who has faked his death to get away from his abusive father. They travel down the Mississippi together encountering people like robbers and con-artists. Jim meets a group of indentured slaves and asks for a pencil, only to learn the man, Young George, who gives him the pencil stole it from his master, and he was later whipped and lynched because of it. Jim and Huck are split up when is nearly sold by the con-artists, handed over to work as a blacksmith, and then purchased by the leader of a minstrel group.

In Part II, through the minstrel group, Jim meets Norman, a white-passing former slave. The concoct a plan for Norman to sell Jim repeatedly and hopefully make money to buy their wives and Jim's daughter back. They try it once, but another slave that Jim brings to run away with him gets shot in the process. The eventually end up on a steamboat full of passengers that are fleeing the South because war with the North has broken out now that the southern states are seceding. Huck is on the boat, too. The boat capsizes and Jim has to choose whether to save Norman or Huck.

In Part III, Jim chooses to save Huck, and when Huck asks why afterwards, Jim tells Huck that he's his biological son. Jim and Huck's mother grew up together. Jim and Huck make their way back home, where Jim learns that his family has been sold. Jim stays a night at his old house and sees the overseer Hopkins rape a young slave, Katie. Jim then hides out on Jackson Island. As he waits, he kills Hopkins when Hopkins wanders drunk and alone onto the island and takes his pistol. When Huck is unable to find out where Jim's family is, Jim forces Judge Thatcher at gunpoint to tell him, and Thatcher says they're in Edina. Jim then forces Thatcher to row him part of the way to Edina, and walks the rest of the way to what turns out to be plantation of a slave breeder. Jim releases all the slaves, lights the cornfields on fire to cause a distraction, shoots the overseer and all the slaves flee. Jim and his family make it to a town in Iowa. The book ends with the local sheriff asking if any of them are the runaway slave "Jim", but Jim says that his name is "James".

Part I

In Hannibal, Missouri, Jim is a slave who belongs to Miss Watson, along with his daughter Sadie and wife Lizzie. Jim dumbs himself down and adjusts his speech patterns accordingly to keep the white people around him comfortable and teaches his daughter and the other black children to do the same. Huckleberry "Huck" Finn and Tom Sawyer are local boys who like to involve him in their games. Tom tend to be an instigator, whereas Huck considers Jim to be a friend and confidante.

When Jim hears that Miss Watson plans on separating him from his family and selling him to someone in New Orleans, Jim escapes to Jackson Island, nearby, to hide out. He hopes to come back for his family later. Then, when Huck's abusive father comes back into town, Huck fakes his death and escapes there, too. Jim knows he has to keep Huck alive or they'll assume he left because he killed Huck.

When it floods, Jim and Huck scavenge from a house floating by, though Jim tells Huck to leave when he sees a dead body. Jim doesn't tell Huck that the dead man was Huck's father. Jim then gets bit by a rattlesnake and has to slowly recover. He is worried about his family, so he sends Huck back to town dressed like a girl (to disguise his identity) to go check on them. When Huck returns, he thinks people are following him so he makes a fire on the other side of the island to draw them there. He also reports that there's a $300 bounty for Jim. Jim and Huck leave the island since people will come searching soon.

They continue down the river and come across some robbers on a wrecked steamboat. They end up stealing robbers' skiff, along with the loot inside, and continuing down in that until they're reunited with their canoe. In the robbers' loot, Jim finds some books, which he takes with him. One night, their boat is stolen, and they try riding on just the raft, but it gets destroyed from being jostled by the waves of larger boats. Jim swims to shore, but is separated from Huck.

Jim meets four black men who tell him they're in Illinois. They are "indentured servants" (essentially still slaves) at the plantations nearby. He asks them for a pencil, and one of them, Young George, steals one from his master to give to Jim. When Jim is ready to leave the area, he sees Young George being whipped for stealing the pencil. Sadly unable to stop it, Jim leaves and happens to be reunited again with Huck -- who has been having his own adventures involving an elopement between warring families nearby that ends with a gunfight. Huck has also found and repaired their raft in the meantime.

They keep traveling and manage to find a canoe. Huck wants to go exploring a creek for fun, but when he returns, there's two white men with him who are con-men that are fleeing town. They claim to be the Duke of Bridgewater and King Louis the Seventeenth. They soon get the idea to sell Jim for money. Huck and Jim manage to lose them in a small town when a mob of people realize they are liars and con-men, but the Duke and the King catch up to Huck and Jim later down the river.

They all go into town in order for the Duke and the King to sell Jim, and they take Jim to the blacksmiths to put a shackle on him while they sleep. However, the black blacksmith, Easter, takes off Jim's shackle when they leave, saying he'll put it back on in the morning so he can sleep without it. When the Duke and the King arrive the next morning and find Jim without his shackle, Duke whips Easter, causing Easter's owner, Mr. Wiley, to come down and get angry with them. Wiley demands Jim's services while Easter recovers, and the Duke and the King leave with just Huck.

Easter then teaches Jim about blacksmithing. He tells Jim that Wiley treats him well, but would still shoot Jim if he tried to run. Later, Wiley comes and demands they sing while they work. The singing attracts the attention of Daniel Decatur Emmett who leads a performing group of (white) minstrels, and he offers Wiley $200 to purchase Jim to sing for them, since they're recently lost their tenor. One of the minstrels is Norman, who privately reveals to Jim that he's a white-passing former slave.

Emmett tells Jim that he doesn't believe in slavery, and he treats Jim with some dignity. However, he also says that Jim would need to pay him back the $200 if he wanted to leave. He offers Jim $1 per performance. When Jim asks if that's what tenors are paid, Emmett responds that it's a good wage for a black tenor. At the minstrel show, the men dress up in blackface, while Jim is made up to look like a white man in blackface. However, one man from the audience suspects Jim actually is black. The man comes back that night with the same suspicions. Emmett chases him off, but then orders the minstrel group to pack their things and leave before the man can return again.

At the next place, Emmett tells Jim to stay back since it's a "rowdy" area where there are likely to kill Jim if they suspect the truth. When the others are performing, Jim flees.

Part II

In the woods, Norman finds Jim, saying that he couldn't stay with the minstrels any longer. Norman has been working in hopes of saving up money to buy his wife, who is still a slave. Jim and Norman hatch a plan for Norman to pose as a white man and sell Jim. Then, Jim can escape, and they can keep doing it until they have enough to buy back Jim's family and Norman's wife.

They go to a town called Blackbird Hole, and Norman sells Jim to the sawmill owner, Henderson, for $350. Henderson turns out to be a bully who whips Jim for no reason on the first day and rapes his female slave, Sammy. That night, Jim and Sammy make a run for it. They find Norman and the three flee. Henderson eventually catches up to them and shoots Sammy.

Jim and Norman make it away alive, steal a skiff and manage to board a riverboat. They hide out in the engine room, but the slave working the engine room, Brock, is crazy. The situation on the boat is also hectic because it's packed with people fleeing the south since there's a war going on. The southern states are leaving the Union. The minstrals are on the boat, as is Huck. Brock overheats the engine and soon the boats occupants are fleeing the boat. Jim ends up in the water with Norman and Huck struggling nearby, and he has to choose one to go to.

Part III

Jim chooses to save Huck. Norman sadly dies. When Huck asks why he saved him afterwards, Jim tells Huck that Huck is his biological son. Jim and Huck's mother grew up together. Huck asks what that makes him, and Jim says that he can be whatever he wants to be. But he doesn't think that running away with Jim is a good option because he's safe with Miss Watson. Jim also admits that the dead man in the house they found was Huck's "pap".

Jim and Huck make their way back home to Hannibal, Missouri, with Jim planning to take his family escape. However, Jim learns that his family has been sold. Jim stays a night at his old house and sees the overseer Hopkins rape a young slave, Katie. Jim then goes to hides out on Jackson Island while telling Huck to find out where his family was sent to. As he waits, Hopkins wanders drunk and alone onto the island. Thinking about Katie and the other slaves he raped as well as a young slave boy that Hopkins lynched for looking at a white woman, Jim chokes Hopkins to death and takes his pistol.

Soon, Huck reports back that Jim's family was sent to the Graham farm, but he doesn't know where it is. Jim then breaks into Judge Thatcher's house to look for details, but doesn't find any. Instead, he's interrupted by Thatcher himself. Jim pulls a gun on him and demands to know where his family is and tells him to draw it on a map. Thatcher says they're in Edina. Jim then forces Thatcher to row him part of the way there. He then ties Thatcher to a tree and continues on foot.

Jim eventually reaches Edina, where he's told that the Graham farm is a slave breeding plantation. At night, Jim releases the slaves, finds his family, sets the cornfields there on fire to create a distraction, shoots the overseer and they all flee north. Some are caught and some are killed, but Jim and his family make it to a town in Iowa. The book ends with the local sheriff asking if any of them are the runaway slave "Jim", but Jim says that his name is "James".

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.

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Book Review

James is Percival Everett’s retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, told from the perspective of Jim, the runaway slave that travels with Huck down the Mississippi in the novel.

Released last month (March 19) to resoundingly positive reviews, Everett’s newest offering re-centers the novel on Jim’s experience. In doing so, it highlights Jim’s resourcefulness and intelligence and his concerns about his freedom, safety and dignity, as well as underscoring Huck’s privilege and youthful curiosity. While the events towards the beginning more closely mirror those in the original, in the parts where it branches off or fills in missing pieces, James decisively separates itself from the work it’s based upon.

James captures much of the same sense of adventure as Huck Finn, but the shift in perspective is incisive, powerful, cutting and elucidating. The encounters Jim has are carefully selected — like the indentured slave Young George, a white-passing former slave Norman, or the minstrel singer Emmett who is against slavery but buys Jim and doesn’t consider him to be free. It’s a narrative brimming with satire, commentary, adventure, and exploration.

In an interview, Everett talks about his novel saying that “I hope that no one thinks that my novel is about slavery. There’s a difference between writing a story about people who happen to be slaves and writing a story about slavery.”

It’s a helpful quote to understand the content of this novel. Jim is born a slave, and it’s reflected in his condition and affects every aspect of how he has to act or adjust his behavior, but the types of things he contends with and the observations he makes extend beyond this being a story about slavery. And Jim is much more than a slave.

Jim’s journey is a varied and emotional one. There is tragedy, beauty and excitement in his trip down the Mississippi. By the time I finished it, describing it as a “retelling” of another book seemed to completely miss the point of this singular and poignantly written novel.

Read it or Skip it?

James is a book that packs a punch. Everett retains a lot of the sense of the adventure from Jim and Huck’s tale of traveling down the Mississippi while incorporating a lot of cutting commentary and very bold plot choices. This is a decidedly heavier novel, despite its quick pace and short length, but there’s an effortlessness to Everett’s writing that makes it a frictionless read.

It’s undoubtably a literary fiction title for when you’re in the mood for something serious and somewhat academic, but not unaccessible. I imagine this book will find itself in many classrooms to be read alongside or replacing the book it retells.

If you do find yourself in the mood for it, it’s a sharply written, powerful, emotional, fine read. I love when I read a book that I can recommend without reservations, and this is one of them.

See James on Amazon.

james by percival everett promo

James Audiobook Review

Narrator: 7 hours 48 minutes
Length: Dominic Hoffman

Dominic Hoffman is a fantastic narrator for this book.

Hear a sample of the James audiobook on

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Jim need to dumb himself down in front of the white people around him? In what ways does that keep him safe?
  2. How would you describe Jim and Huck’s relationship? How does race affect the way that Jim and Huck interact? How does their relationship change as the book progresses?
  3. How does code-switching play into the interactions that Jim has in this book?
  4. What did you think about characters like Mr. Wiley (the owner of Easter the blacksmith) and Emmett (from the minstral show)? Why do you think Everett includes these characters? What do you think Everett believes about the notion of a good, kind slave owner? What do you think of this idea?
  5. How does Norman’s experience as a black man differ from Jim’s? Why do you think he was bewildered at the idea of being shot at by Henderson?
  6. What do you think about the part where John Locke describes slavery as a state of war? What do you think of Jim’s question about whether someone has the right to fight back against their enemy if it is a state of war?
  7. What did you think of the philosophical discussions in the book, and what were the parts that stood out to you?
  8. Why does the pencil hold so much importance for Jim?
  9. How does Jim change over the course of the novel?
  10. What did you think of the ending of the book and why do think Everett chose to write the story this way? In the original, it turns out that Miss Watson actually frees Jim in her will. Why do you think the ending was changed?
  11. What were your favorite and least favorite aspects of the book?
  12. What is the importance of the shift from the name “Jim” to “James”?

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of James

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